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The Swing Set

As Kids Follow in Tiger Woods' Footsteps, Golf Equipment Makers Are Close Behind

April 23, 1998|GREG JOHNSON and VANESSA HUA

While they're glad to hear cash registers ringing as parents equip their offspring with irons, putters and woods, manufacturers also are trying to lock in brand loyalty at an early age.

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"You're not going to get the mark-ups that you get with adult clubs," said Gerry Stefanko, chief operating officer for Zevo Golf. "We're not going to make a lot of money with kid's clubs. But what we want are dyed-in-the-wool customers."

"Look at the increased life expectancy based on medicine," said Mike Kelly, marketing manager of Taylor Made. "That's a long period of time to purchase products, [and] we're their first stop."

As equipment manufacturers design clubs for kids, apparel giants such as Nike Corp. and Adidas and designers such as Tommy Hilfiger and Hugo Boss are bringing out trendy golf wear for them.

Golf courses also have profited from increased youth interest. The Melville, N.Y.-based Family Golf Center had huge gains in attendance, a spokeswoman said. Their 77 courses nationwide are launching new clinics and stocking equipment geared to children.

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Starting golf at a young age has its advantages, experts say. Children approach the game with no fear, no expectations and no bad habits. And they can get started practicing the repetitive motion necessary to hone a sweet swing.

"It's harder to teach an old dog new tricks, " said Jamie Conklin of the Southern California Golf Assn. "Juniors are the future of golf."

Cierra Gaytan loves the competition and camaraderie she finds on the links. But she's still a 6-year-old girl--as witnessed by her favorite parts of the golf game: "Filling out the scorecard and driving the cart."

As younger children join the game, some observers acknowledge an inherent problem in handing a child a metal rod topped with an aerodynamic club.

"The one drawback when you're teaching these kids is that you've got a bunch of 5-year-olds with clubs in their hands," Randy Chang said. "They are kids, and they do like to hit things."

Downey resident Brad Schuck had to confiscate his 3-year-old son's irons after the boy used a club to take a swing at the TV screen while watching television coverage of a PGA tournament.

"Jimmy enjoys golf; he truly likes it," Schuck said. "And if he enjoys it, if he does it, then I'm going to do my best to get him equipment. Remember, you're talking to people who have already got the kid a $2,000 computer, so they're probably not going to balk at a couple hundred dollars for clubs."

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Driving Sales

Youths account for a growing share of the golf equipment market. Parents, inspired by the success of Tiger Woods, are taking children to the links with mini versions of high-performance adult clubs. How sales have grown in a five-year period.

Golf club sets--1991

Total sales: $1.2 billion

Kids under 14: $27.8 million (Market share: 2.3%)

Kids 14-17: $44.9 million (Market share: 3.7%)

Golf club sets--1996

Total sales: $2.0 billion

Kids under 14: $60.6 million (Market share: 3.0%)

Kids 14-17: $80.8 million (Market share: 4.0%)

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Putters and drivers--1991

Total sales: $303 million

Kids under 14: $2.1 million (Market share: 0.7%)

Kids 14-17: $8.5 million (Market share: 2.8%)

Putters and drivers--1996

Total sales: $404 million

Kids under 14: $5.3 million (Market share: 1.3%)

Kids 14-17: $14.1 million (Market share: 3.5%)

Source: National Sporting Goods Assn.

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